I coach, therefore I learn

Weekly coaching observations are an important part of teacher development in our school- my colleague Emma Hickey has written about her experience of being coached here. These are obviously designed to help the teachers being coached but I am increasingly finding that coaching others helps my own development.

Upping my game

My teaching isn’t bad at all, but when I see another teacher doing something I don’t do or something I don’t do well enough, possibilities suddenly open up. On Friday I watched a History lesson where the teacher expertly used paired work, group work and hot-seating, things that are less common in my classroom but which worked brilliantly in his. On Wednesday and Friday I saw amazing-but contrasting- examples of in-class interventions from Maths and MFL teachers. I love when I see something that challenges me to be better- this post from Andrew Warner captures this joy of seeing a great lesson.

The process of giving advice often forces me to reflect on my own teaching. Sometimes when I suggest a way to improve, I could almost be giving myself the same advice. It can be easier to spot an area for development in someone else than notice it about your own teaching.

Improving the quality of CPD

It’s tough to get CPD right, but the more lessons that I see, particularly outside my own subject area, the more confident I am in designing sessions that are useful for everyone, and not just a few. There is generic advice around teaching which doesn’t apply to every subject so seeing lessons and discussing the nuances with others helps me to deliver better training. I have an English teacher’s approach to marking, not a music teacher’s. I have five lessons a week with year 10, not one. Every lesson is a chance for me to learn how another teacher’s experience differs from my own.

I can also see the impact of CPD. I don’t mean checking up and holding people to account, because that is far removed from how coaching should be. I mean whether it is effective enough. Largely, when we introduce something new, or suggest a way of doing things, teachers will do it. That’s a massive responsibility and if something that we say doesn’t work, or isn’t actually helpful, then it is good to see that and do something about it. It works the other way around too- I can see where our CPD has been very effective and then share examples of good practice.

Thinking deeply about teaching

I have more ‘lighbulb moments’ in other people’s lessons than my own. Sometimes, seeing several lessons across a week allows me to think about a particular aspect of teaching in a more than theoretical way. One of my favourite posts, The Space Between the Question and the Answer, was conceived in this way. I had been contemplating questioning and wait time then saw how various teachers went about this and the effect in their classrooms. Sometimes a single moment in a lesson will lead to a massive shift in understanding.

Seeing students in a different light

In one of my coaching observations I see a Maths class made up of many of the students that I teach. It’s fascinating to see a different dynamic at play. Much like when a student sees you in Asda and it blows their mind, seeing students you teach in a different context is an eye-opener. The quiet student who comes to life; the one whose behaviour is much better than it is in your lesson; the hidden world of student behaviours that you miss when you are not looking.

Making me more open to feedback

I am confident in my own teaching but there is a danger that confidence becomes arrogance, and arrogance becomes resistance to feedback. I’ve definitely been there. The culture that we have at DKA- and my own role as a coach- has helped me relish the feedback I receive. When I coach others, I don’t judge or look for problems, I just look for what might be the simplest way to improve. I know that my coach is thinking this too, so it helps me to relax. Each week my coach makes my brain hurt a little with her questions, which is exactly the way I want it.

I would recommend that all teachers get into other classrooms, even for five minutes a week. Those five minutes could make all the difference.

Better teachers of our subjects

What makes a good teacher?

Teachers should have good subject knowledge, but anyone who saw David Starkey on Jamie’s Dream School knows that it isn’t enough. Teachers should have good knowledge of pedagogy, but you wouldn’t want me teaching German. Is good teaching just a sum of these two things? Subject knowledge + pedagogy? Not quite. Effective teaching is an understanding of the way that these two combine very specifically in our subject areas.

What makes your subject unique?

In the Venn diagram of subjects, the areas of crossover are quite small. Yet we spend much of our time in school CPD sessions designed to fit around all subjects when this may have little impact. That’s why we have to focus on pedagogical content knowledge– how to teach our subjects well.

Let’s start with behaviour management as an example (This is obviously not about teaching subject content but good behaviour is crucial for good teaching). There are certainly a number of useful strategies that can be shared with everyone. We know that there are ways of using language, certain routines and habits which tend to work in all subjects. However, there are very subject specific issues which can only be addressed by those subject areas. Students in music practice booths. The Wild West of P.E. changing rooms. The moment a student in Science discovers that pulling on goggles makes them hit the face with a satisfying ‘whack’. These are highly specific to each subject area so time should be spent with those departments working on those areas.

Another example. For many years, a typical training session in schools might be designed around ways to identify misconceptions. I’ve delivered them myself. Ways to check on whole class understanding such as using mini whiteboards and hinge questions. But it isn’t just about the methods we use to check for understanding but the depth of knowledge about the types of misconceptions students might have and how best to identify them. The Sutton Trust report into good teaching stated the following on this topic:

As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

Spending time on these aspects will be where the greatest gains are, rather than looking at a hundred ways to identify them. For a great example of a subject teacher doing just this, have a look at Harry Fletcher-Wood’s extensive work on hinge questions in History.

And the list goes on. Feedback. Explanations. Modelling. All unique. Literacy is especially problematic and can lend itself to whole school initiatives that never really have a chance of working because of the different ways that subjects work. Of course there are some things which can be communicated as good practice and getting the whole staff body together can be the most effective way to do it, but time for staff to explore subject implications should always be built in.

Department meetings are a place where this can happen too. The best subject areas are the ones who remove as much admin as possible from their meetings and concentrate on teaching. But subject teams do not always have control of how often they meet and there can often be competing focuses.

Leaders need to know subjects

To support teachers in developing their ability to teach their subjects well, leaders need to develop a clearer understanding of what effective teaching is in every subject. I am seeing a greater number of lessons at the moment in a number of subjects and I find it fairly straightforward to give feedback on general pedagogy but there are some aspects where I am simply not an expert. For example, I have observed a number of science lessons this year. I have tried to familiarise myself with what makes good practice in Science, but I would be unlikely to notice if a basic error in terms of subject knowledge was made. While I feel that I know a little about Mathematics, I would struggle to tell you if a concept had been explained properly and understood. Whereas in an English lesson, I’d be very confident in providing highly developmental feedback because I know the subject very well.

How can leaders develop at least a working knowledge of subjects? I’d recommend reading Ofsted’s subsidiary guidance for each subject as a useful starting point. Not to use as a ticklist, but to get a sense of the kinds of things that might make the subject unique. There are often more detailed subject reports like ‘Moving English Forward’ and ‘Music in schools: wider still, and wider’, where the following is found:

Promote teachers’ use of musical sound as the dominant language of musical teaching and learning by:

–       ensuring that lesson planning includes a strong focus on the teacher’s musical preparation as well as defining lesson structures and procedures

–       establishing musical sound as the ‘target language’ of teaching and learning, with talking and writing about music supporting, rather than driving, the development of pupils’ musical understanding

–       developing and refining teachers’ listening and musical modelling skills, so that they can more accurately interpret and respond to pupils’ music-making and show more effectively how to improve the musical quality of their work.

This won’t make up for my lack of musical knowledge but it will give me a start in understanding a key part of excellent music lessons. The next stage is to listen to the experts- the music teachers. When Ofsted say, ‘establish.. musical sound as the target language of teaching’, we need to work with music teachers in our schools to understand what that means in the classroom. If we don’t know then we can give feedback which is inaccurate and unhelpful- and potentially harmful.

Paired observations with subject experts and meetings with relevant teachers before seeing them teach will help to make the process easier and help us with what we need to know. We need to know that students in P.E. might do well in the half term on badminton but regress when they are assessed in gymnastics (I did!). We need to be aware that ‘target language’ is crucial in MFL. We need to consider that an R.E. teacher may see 20 different classes in a week. We need to know that progress in one subject is different from another nationally. And so on.

I’m not dismissing the need to look at general pedagogy but I feel that I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher and the greater focus we place on subject expertise, the better.

Ofsted outstanding lesson examples

In the Ofsted Annual Report, several examples were given of ‘outstanding lessons’:

In 2012/13, inspectors saw many different kinds of outstanding teaching, although nearly all shared the common characteristics of high expectations, detailed subject knowledge, good and attentive behaviour and an unremitting focus on what children were expected to learn.

Now, just because Ofsted say something, it doesn’t mean that we should suddenly see that as the right way to teach (but I would hope nobody would disagree with the points above). Nor should we assume that all inspectors will be singing from the same hymnsheet. After all, judging lessons is still a subjective business. However, as teachers we cannot ignore that Ofsted’s agenda does have an impact on schools.

I was particularly interested in the two English lessons described. These lessons have been chosen specifically to indicate best practice, so we can learn much about Ofsted’s vision of outstanding teaching from them. There are some interesting points addressed which contradict received wisdom about Ofsted. Here are the lessons, with the phrases I wish to concentrate on in blue:

Lesson 1: Year 11 English students were studying J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’. Students listened attentively and quietly as the teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing. Her talk included an excellent example of an evaluative sentence, and students were challenged to come up with examples of their own. Following this, students were set to work on exploring the text, and during their evaluative writing the teacher cross-examined individuals, using searching questions to provoke a deeper level of knowledge and understanding. The work set had been meticulously planned and each student was mindful of their target grades and knew what was expected of them. Although this was a tightly planned lesson, the teacher responded flexibly to students’ questions, allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift so that she could fill gaps in the students’ knowledge and understanding.

Lesson 2: In a Year 10 English lesson on Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, the teacher kept the lesson format simple and allowed students, through high quality debate and note-taking, to develop considerable proficiency in annotating text with detailed and insightful textual analysis. The students worked doggedly, and committedly, to improve their knowledge and understanding. As a result, they were informed and knowledgeable about the different dimensions of the character of Curley’s wife, and at all times they closely referenced the text when making their observations. At the heart of this successful learning was an experienced and expert teacher, who motivated the students well and ensured that they were fully prepared for a subsequent writing task.

My thoughts:

The teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing.

From this, we can be clear that teacher explanations are not frowned upon. Ofsted pointedly use the phrase ‘Her talk’ and I feel this is indicating that teachers can begin lessons with explanations without fear of a negative judgement. Pupils ‘listened attentively’ and ‘students were challenged to come up with examples of their own’ so this is not described as passive learning. There are many examples in Ofsted reports where ‘teacher talk’ is criticised but I feel that the report is at pains to clarify that ‘inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology’.

In the Science lesson described in the report, I also think the phrase ‘The teacher led the pupils…’ (my emphasis) is included in the report deliberately. The phrase ‘Teacher led’ is often used as a criticism but in this case the teacher is leading students towards deep learning. The lesson is punctuated by ‘short, sharp direct inputs and a series of challenges set for pupils,’ so once again this is not talking at the students. In an example Year 3 lesson, ‘the pupils listened intently as the teacher recapped previous learning, using a story to prompt the class to identify examples and justify them.’ There is a real sense – to me at least- that these examples exist to reinforce the point that we can and should teach how we want. We need not be scared of explaining, discussing, modelling and asking ‘searching questions’.

Allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift…

In the first English example, the teacher is praised for a ‘meticulously planned’ lesson. However, when the lesson needs to be adapted, that is also praised. There were ‘several…mistakes’ made by students in a Maths lesson but the teacher had anticipated and addressed them. When you understand that there were many, many outstanding Maths lessons observed, for them to single out one where many mistakes were made is significant.

It is important to acknowledge that a lesson where every single student ‘gets it’ straight away is a) not typical and b) probably not challenging enough. The teacher’s job is to address misconceptions and it is their skill to identify and intervene appropriately. The more Ofsted repeat this, the fewer teachers we will see wanting the ground to swallow them up when things don’t go to plan.

Knowledge and Understanding

In both English lesson examples, they use the above phrase and ‘key scientific knowledge’, ‘thorough knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ itself appear throughout the lesson examples. It seems that ‘knowledge’ is (quite rightly) valued by Ofsted and this reflects the changed wording of the September 2013 Inspection handbook which introduced the phrase ‘growth in students’ knowledge’. (See Heather Leatt’s handy guide to changes for September 2013 here)

The teacher kept the lesson format simple

I think this point is very, very important, especially when placed against the checklist of ideas Ofsted provide earlier in the report. The report mentions the ‘Moving English Forward’ report from March 2012 and I was struck by just how much the annual report echoed findings presented in that earlier document.

Both reports refer to myths which Ofsted wish to point out:

The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; and limited time for pupils to work independently.

These points can be cross-referenced with a bad practice example from the ‘Moving English Forward’ report:

The lesson involved a Year 9 class working on techniques of persuasive writing. The lesson was planned in detail. The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment. Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment. In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students‟ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board.

This final example contrasts with the two earlier lessons. Whoever we blame for the encouragement of the type of lesson described above, it is positive that Ofsted are addressing the problems.

How will this affect classroom practice? Well, in truth it shouldn’t. We should go on teaching in the way we feel is right regardless of Ofsted. However, it is my own experience that the lesson described above is commonplace in observations and I say that because it is a typical lesson from my classroom as recently as a year or two ago. I have advocated this kind of lesson because I firmly believed that it would be praised by Ofsted. I still find observations to be a bit of a mind reading game which depend on who is observing you. I admit too that I have encouraged the flurry of progress checking activities which Ofsted say they would never advocate.

What is pleasing is that the examples of outstanding practice given above are typical lessons in my classroom and in the classrooms of my colleagues. The Ofsted report is a reassuring reminder that we need not abandon what we know is right and do day-in-day-out when Ofsted come calling.



Mind Reading

I have had a few conversations with colleagues this week about doing well in lesson observations. We have had a two day mock inspection and as can happen in these kinds of situations, excellent teachers begin to second-guess their practice. The advice I usually give is ‘just do what you normally do’ but this advice is difficult when observers tend to have their own criteria for what makes a great lesson. I’m not really talking about the basics here. It’s more about those nuances which can take a formally observed lesson from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. This is when a lesson observation, especially by someone unknown to the observee, can often become an exercise in mind reading.

I have heard many sweeping statements from different people of what would need to be observed in a lesson for it to be awarded ‘outstanding’. Some expect to see individual, paired and group work, others will mark the lesson as less than good if the teacher talks for a certain amount of time etc. I saw a comment on Twitter about someone who would expect to hear each child speak at least once. The fact is that people have their own criteria in their head. I welcome the idea of ‘what’s good is what works’ but this is still widely open to interpretation as ‘what works’ can be taken in so many ways.

This isn’t just about other people. My own ‘checklist’ of what quality teaching looks like has changed dramatically over the last few years.  I remember how incredulous I used to be if I didn’t see an objective written on the board. Up until very recently I have promoted the idea that teachers need to do a mini plenary as soon as the inspectors come through the door. Today, if I were to be asked on my own criteria for excellent lessons, I would say that exercise books are the key and they will tell me most of what I need to know. I like to think that I am sophisticated and know what great teaching is like but it still comes down to my own ideas about what an outstanding lesson looks like.

I’m not sure that we can ever eliminate subjectivity from the process, but I do think we can take steps to avoid the scenario where teachers end up fretting over lesson observations, overthinking what they are doing and trying to satisfy an observer’s very personal criteria. To do this, there needs to be a dialogue between the observer and observee before, during and after the lesson observation. The onus is on the observer to do everything they can to make the process transparent and supportive.

As someone who has to formally observe teachers as part of the performance management process, I have no interest in ‘judging’ teachers when I observe them. I also don’t want to put them in the position of having to second guess my ideas. Any lesson observation needs to be developmental, otherwise it is an empty process. For the staff that I observe in the next half term, I will meet with them beforehand and discuss the lesson.  We’ll discuss the context and any concerns.  I will be clear about the things I am looking for. While there may be disagreement that these are always the right things, at least there is clarity and no one is trying to second guess my motives or my expectations. It could be argued that this will just mean that they perform to my set of criteria. However, I will encourage them to teach in the way that they normally do as that is what I want to see. I will offer developmental feedback where I think I can and follow this up by supporting them with whatever they need.

When I am observed, I try to stick to my guns. As an experienced teacher, I know that one lesson observation doesn’t define me. I am always realistic that if I am observed by person x then I might draw attention to certain aspects of my practice but gone are the days when I would plan a showy lesson just to be graded good or outstanding. The whole idea of putting a number to a lesson observation is pretty ridiculous to be honest but it assumes so much importance for teachers, particularly those in their formative years. We can’t underestimate the deeply personal effect that the grading of a lesson can have on an individual. We will struggle to be exactly clear about what Ofsted inspectors have on their personal checklists  but we can definitely remove the mind reading element in our school systems.